When Maps Deceive (Really?)

Using a scale of 1-10, how reliable do you expect any map to be? Pick a place in the world – – any place – then, with a map in front of you, answer: where is it exactly? How far from where you are now? How big is it? What's the best way to get there? In the case of a lake, what rivers feed and drain it? If you picked a country, have its borders ever been soaked in blood and what, if any, disputes continue? 

Remarkably, maps elicit a high degree of respect. This holds true for print maps as well as the now-prevalent digital maps. People honor map information with a higher trust rating than they give the United States Congress. Maps appear to enjoy a status formerly reserved for the healing professions, religious institutions, university administrators and the badged, blue-clad types who patrol our streets. 

Still, being skeptical can often be the right response. Mapmakers are much like human beings: they can go wrong. Probably more often than we know. Sometimes through ignorance, sometimes with secret intention to deceive.

A Wow! example that probably didn't get to your favorite TV channel or into your daily news sheet comes from Quill and Quire, a professional newsletter of publishing news; it's a short read here.

If we probe, not just skim the story, we can gain further insight. Why would mapmakers release a map with such a glaring error? Did they think they could get away with it? Syria and Jordan do exist, but why would the truth of their territory be stretched all the way to the Mediterranean? Since the market was Arab countries of the Middle East, is that a clue? Can maps bend truth to fit existing prejudices? Can maps also distort, consciously or not, our views of the world? Or ask the question: A TV anchor concocts a story and is promptly shown the exit; what happens to geographers who invent their own “facts”? Do they live to work another day? Should they?

A striking example of a map intended to deceive comes out of Germany/Austria in the days before World War II. Germany was lusting to rearm; a young Austrian named Rupert von Schumacher published the map Ein Kleinstaat bedrohit Deutschland (A Minor Country Is Menacing Germany) – reproduced below. The Czech Air Force is depicted flying over, hence threatening the German people. The fact that the Czechs did not actually have that capability became irrelevant: the map got wide circulation both inside and beyond Germany as the Nazis engaged in a propaganda campaign. Result: when Nazis invaded the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia, enough people believed what they had seen on the map and related materials that outrage was muted. The most deadly war in history was on its way.

                                                Public Domain

On the lighter side, even services like Google Maps and MapQuest can play tricks on us. Once I playfully called for directions from a New Jersey address to the Eiffel Tower. What I got started as pretty standard stuff: turn-by-turn instructions over the George Washington Bridge and to the docks that serve transatlantic traffic. Then it simply said, “Swim” and gave a compass bearing. Once on French soil it picked up driving directions again. Some programmer was having fun. Even a trusted mapping service can be manipulated!

If an atlas can be wrong; if a single map can tell a lie; even a globe can get it wrong. In 1492 a German geographer, Martin Behaim, created an earth globe. Using available info and making educated guesses wherever facts and measurements were unknown, he developed a globe that showed Asia – including Japan, China and India – not that far off Europe's west coast. With no intervening landmass that we know as the Americas, the globe clearly “demonstrated” that Europeans could conveniently and economically reach the riches of Asia by sailing west, so avoiding the long, difficult and dangerous voyage around Africa's southern tip.

That represented progress. It effectively carried the message, “The earth is round. No matter how far you go, you'll never drop off the edge!”

Did Christopher Columbus get fooled as well as encouraged by Behaim's globe? No proof exists, but possibly. There is, after all, a reason why he called the people he encountered “Indians.” If this globe deceived Columbus, it may be a prime example of cartographic error leading to a whole new era in geography and world history

Debate over how we should view the discovery of the Americas has not reached the shouting stage. But it goes on nevertheless. The name of Columbus is widely revered, but some take a more critical view.  Instead of celebrating Columbus Day, for example, some advocate we relabel it Justice for Native Americans, say, recognizing that the European invasion of the Americas brought disease and violent death for many and the destruction of a viable way of life ... as well as great opportunity for others. 

Is it possible that sometimes we get our history as well as our maps wrong? 

As 20th-century Germans looked on next-door Czechoslovakia as a threat, so 18th-century French citizens saw the developing science of mapping as their enemy. Here's the story:

Four generations of the Cassini family were tasked with mapping France, using then-new surveying instruments and the technique of triangulation. The goal was to produce, on a unified scale, one map of the whole country. This had never before been done, anywhere.

But what may seem to us as clearly the right thing, and important, struck more like a threat to millions whose identity was linked to a certain region rather than to France as a whole. In what may be seen as a foretaste of things to come in another part of the world, they feared the power of “big government.” France was not a country so much as a basketful of local regions. Even the French language as we know it today did not exist ...to illustrate, Graham Robb in his book, The Discovery of France gives one of his chapters the title:

O Oc Si Bai Ya Win Oui Oyi Awe Ja Jin Oua

– this being a sampling of the words used for Yes in the various patois of the time (some 6 million “French people” did not even speak French!) Result: hefty suspicion of “them” – of outsiders. Including the mappers measuring their territory. In some deep sense, the idea of a single map that would show them as part of a nation rather than a tiny area where they felt at home, came as a threat.  Like many deep feelings, this one got acted upon, even to the murder of a Cassini-team mapmaker and the hacking of his body in the 1740s.

Fear and anger can lead to strange behavior. Maps can be seen not only as deceiving, but as undercutting who we really are.

To learn about other examples of cartographic errors, and possibly exercise your own forensic skills, here are some resources:

How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier. (Caution: not all claims in this book are reliable.)

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen

Seeing through Maps: The Power of Images to Shape Our World View by Ward Kaiser and Denis Wood – or its second edition,

Seeing through Maps: Many Ways to See the World by Denis Wood, Ward Kaiser and Bob Abramms.

Or, add your comments right here, so taking part in an open discussion. We invite you -- give it a go!